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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Deeper, colder lake key to solving Basin water dilemma

Published Feb. 23, 2004


Robert W. Gardner is a long-time Klamath Falls resident. Much of the material in his commentary was obtained from "50 Years on the Klamath," by John C. Boyle, and "Early Transportation on the Klamath," by Harry Drew.

Guest columnist

I am writing in regard to the Klamath Basin water problem. Though it is believed there is no easy solution, I believe there is a way to meet the needs of all.

When Fremont came here in the mid-1800s, he found a huge, shallow lake covering most of the basin at the foot of Crater Lake. It was so foul-smelling and dirty-looking with green algae in it that his horses wouldn't even drink from it. In the winter and spring, the lake would overfill and flush itself. In the summer and fall it would dry up, shrinking considerably.

White men started taking advantage of the lake soon after they arrived. Farmers would use the lake bottom in the summer when it was dry. In the winter when it flooded it would refertilize the ground with minerals coming down from the volcanic remains of Mount Mazama.

Loggers found that the lake that remained during the summer was deep enough to run barges of logs, creating great business opportunities in mills and shipping.

By the 1900s, there were also several resort destinations around the lake and large paddlewheel ships to carry people to various destinations around the lake. All of this activity soon came to an end though, with the arrival of the train and the automobile, which were much faster than a boat, barge, or ship.

At the beginning of the 1900s, people began using the water for new things, such as electricity. Several dams were built to take advantage of the Klamath River's water power, including the dam on the Link River that was built to regulate flows downstream.

Dam came later

Most people think that dam was put there for irrigation, but the farmers had taken advantage of natural terrain features when they started digging their canals and the Link River dam was built later.

At about the same time the dams were being built, the government stepped in with the Klamath Reclamation Project. This project would drain the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake and establish a network of canals designed to irrigate up to 600,000 acres of land. That was when the only way to do it was through flooding.

So what has changed so much that we are fighting over all this water? I say, blindness to the problems.

In 1919, surveys were taken, and it was determined that the average depth of the lake was about 13 feet. Tests also determined that the lake was being filled in at a rate of half an inch a year.

Not knowing how deep the mud was, those making the tests took a core sample on a mud flat in 1931. They went down 27 feet, but did not get through it. That's 65 years of deposits on a free-flowing system. Now we have dams on the lower end of the lake keeping it from flushing itself out, and 100 years later the lake is about 9 feet deep. At this rate, in about 75 years all we'll have is a river left on the west side, if we don't act now.

A 4-foot difference in depth may not seem alarming, but we must consider more than the changes of the past. Changes of the future will happen more rapidly. Here's why: When most people look at a lake, they see the surface and think the bottom is almost as flat. In reality, we know this is not so. We know that areas that were once 5 feet deep are now a foot deep. Once that area fills in, the same volume of fill will continue to flow into a smaller area, causing that area to fill more quickly. Thus, we will have a snowball effect, and the lake fills faster.

After researching the problem, I believe, for a number of reasons, that dredging the lake is the only way to save it. Dredging would result in deeper, colder water. Deeper water means water can be drawn down further for irrigation use, while still having deep, cold water left for fish. Deeper water also means less algae and less odor. Less odor means more people on the lake. More people on the lake means more money for Klamath Falls businesses.

But questions remain

Still, knowing the advantages that dredging could produce, questions arise. How do you dredge a lake that is so large? What do you do with all that dirt? Wouldn't it take too many years to do it? As challenging as these questions are, there are answers.

The sad part about this is that, with all of the government regulations it makes it's practically impossible for a small business to tackle the problem.

In the 1960s, there was a dredge on the Klamath. Environmental concerns got the project shut down. Now the challenges of a new environmental impact study would be staggering for a small business.

A study of this kind could cost $l million or more and take a couple of years to complete. And that's if nobody challenges it. If challenged, it could take much more time and money. On the upside, new dredges have been made that even the Sierra Club has endorsed.

The fact remains, had we kept on dredging back in the 1960s, the lake would be deeper right now. But as stated above, governmental regulations have made it an overwhelming challenge for the small businessman to tackle. Therefore, I believe it's time for either a large company or the government (or a combination of the two) to step in and get this going. All that's happening right now is, we are studying this problem to death - in the long run, to the death of the lake.




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